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Post-Punk, Pre-Internet: The Forgotten ‘90s Gunk Scene

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In the new book We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988–2001, New Bomb Turks frontman Eric Davidson delves deep into the overlooked garage punk scene of the 1990s.

Post-Punk, Pre-Internet: The Forgotten ‘90s Gunk Scene

As ‘90s nostalgia begins its inevitable march into our collective cultural consciousness, it’s worth remembering that by the time Nirvana released In Utero alternative culture was big business and very much the status quo. Green Day and the Offspring, bands birthed from a genuine punk subculture, shared chart space with En Vogue. Mudhoney was popping up on MTV. Offering a mix of on-the-ground reportage and exhaustive interviews, Eric Davidson’s We Never Learn reminds us that there were also genuine alternatives to the “alternative”; the one at hand based on gallons of beer, a general adherence to DIY self-reliance, and a love of extremely raw, near-violent rock. Covering more bands than one may care to remember, Davidson shows how raving loons such as the Mummies, the Gibson Bros., the Candy Snatchers, Billy Childish, and his own New Bomb Turks helped save punk from the clutches of glossy mall punks and the mopey junkies of the "alternative" movement of the time, grunge — and in the process may or may not have paved the road for a future generation of tuneful psychos.

  • Though certainly not the only soldiers of the underground, the “gunk punks” would turn out to be the most genuinely rock ‘n’ roll oriented, both in sound and ethos. Beginning in the late 1980s with bands such as Death of Samantha and the Cynics, Davidson tracks a movement that acted as a dual response to the somewhat militant, orthodox ideology of hardcore and the self-consciously retro, paint-by-numbers bangs-and-Beatle-boots acts. Though elements of both of the aforementioned styles would creep into the sounds of the bands discussed in We Never Learn, two essential — and for the time, fairly original — strands would emerge.

    “The bands who were really trashy, really almost exclusively ‘60s based and a little obscure ‘70s punk, but really trashy, really lo-fi and cranky — Mummies, Oblivians, Gories — and then the other side a little tighter, louder, a little more rock — the Dwarves, the Didjits. They all ended up kind of recording the same way — 4-tracks, 8-tracks — they all ended up passing each other in the night, playing on bills together, and buying each other’s records. A lot of these bands were on Crypt and In the Red and Estrus together. Sympathy [for the Record Industry] put out probably all of these bands.”

    Though it’s clear that all these groups shared a genuine lust for classic punk and the various lo-fi derivations that both preceded and immediately followed punk’s initial offering, the appreciation seems to have stemmed not from a collector scum’s infatuation with obscurity but simply from the desire to throw a good party. Taken one step further, if there’s one unifying thread to this movement — and indeed We Never Learn — it’s a premium on fun. Admittedly, the good times might not seem like such a lofty ideal on which to base a movement, but at the pinnacle of Political Correctness, the hedonism of rock ‘n’ roll became a suddenly unfamiliar and newly provocative notion in the underground.

    “You would think with most bands the fun thing would be important . . .When I started meeting bands in the late ’80s like the Cynics, the Raunch Hands, Billy Childish . . . they’re playing this trashy kind of punk. They clearly liked the Ramones, but they hardly ever talked about anything past Black Flag. [Hardcore] didn’t seem to be essential, as it would to a band that would call themselves a punk band in 1989; the skinhead dudes who moshed and got into really political arguments. These bands were obviously not like that. Pat Todd, Billy Childish these guys were a little older, but even bands like the Didjits, and Dwarves, the Supersuckers, these guys were coming through town and they were listening to Thin Lizzy in the van and you realize it’s people who wanted to reclaim that fun end of punk rock. Not even necessarily apolitical… but enough with the riot grrrl fights.”

    Davidson does a nice job of bringing home this point in print, too. Told through a combination of the author’s Guralnick-via-the-Crypt-catalog style and first-hand accounts from the musicians, the best parts of We Never Learn tend to be the vivid, in-the-moment descriptions of bands at their most unhinged. We’ve all heard crazy stories about wild rock shows, but when reading about the Candy Snatchers, Dwarves or Necessary Evils, you almost feel splattered in blood or soaked in booze. Blag Jesus’ recollections of Dwarves’ drummer Vadge Moore (who, to the best of my knowledge, is not an actual dwarf) alone induce a sudden need for a shower … or a night out, depending on how you roll.

  • The inevitable question arises: Are beer bashes, raunchy fliers, and a scholarly knowledge of sleazy rock enough of a legacy for future generations? Recent folks like the late Jay Reatard, King Louie, and the Spits (among many others) certainly seem to know how to have fun and have kept the torch lit for trashy drunken punk with an ear for the past. If they represent a third or even fourth generation, does that then make Supercharger, the Raunch Hands, and Teengenerate the foundation for whatever the digital-age equivalent of the Bloodstains comps will be?

    In one of the book’s more revealing moments, Larry Hardy, founder of In the Red Records, comments on how new bands are reluctant to even embrace the classics anymore. “I remember talking to the Hunches about the Damned and they were like, ‘Ew, we never listen to them.’ Yet, they’re all into Crime and the Killed by Death bands.” While this would certainly bode well for the Nine Pound Hammers of the world, Davidson himself finds dubious the entire concept of influence as we’ve traditionally understood it.

    "It’s hard to tell about influences anymore just because of the way music works. Things move faster. Kids know about the cool influential band a year after they’ve formed rather than twenty years later. When Columbia or whatever reissued the Velvet Underground records in [the 1980s], I remember buying those and being like ‘Wow, someone wanted to reissue this stuff, crazy!’ and that’s nearly twenty years after they formed. That ain’t gonna happen much anymore. Influential bands are discovered a lot quicker and called influential a lot quicker.”

    That said … “[It’s] hard to overstate the influence of the Feel Lucky Punk/Killed By Death/Bloodstains comps of the early ’90s, as they set up this template of making ‘punk’ weird and fringe again for a mess of angry kids who were sure the Green Day thing killed it all. It seems now that even newer bands — Tyvek, Pop. 1280, some of the HoZac/Criminal IQ etc. after-school detention growlers — they seem to have to add noisy scrunch for some sense of authenticity. And maybe diving back into the bands of We Never Learn would be an introduction again, maybe? I don’t know. Don’t mean to sound presumptuous.”

    Given the recent mainstreaming of the arty pop-oriented strands of the indie movement, as marked by the success of Vampire Weekend and others, this new wave of lo-fi weirdos suddenly seems as useful today as the gunk punks were in the ’90s. To each his or her own, of course, but I’d argue that for every “Cape Code Kwassa Kwassa,” it’s nice to have a song like King Khan & BBQ’s “Tastebuds” out there to keep things honest. Truly dangerous (yet well-crafted) rock ‘n’ roll seems to be perpetually in danger of extinction, yet as We Never Learn makes quite clear, it never quite happens, despite the best intentions of the Music Industry. Perhaps it’s irrelevant, then, where new bands buy their bullets, just as long as their guns are loaded.

    That said, there is as much for a Young Turk (no pun intended) to take away from We Never Learn as there is for an aging fortysomething, maybe more. As I mentioned to Davidson, this has to be the first book to ever delve into the history of the Fluid (“I stuck by the Fluid!” he noted when discussing the need to edit down the book’s original 500-page manuscript). Davidson knows his stuff, and the comprehensiveness of the book alone will appeal to anyone interested in punk’s ridiculous number of subgenres. As mentioned above, there are also plenty of howling-mad stories here, some of which rival Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me at its most depraved. However, as Davidson likes to point out about the bands themselves, this isn’t just a knuckle-headed romp. When taken as a whole, one gets a wild, informative history of what was one of the last genuine underground rock ‘n’ roll movements of the pre-internet age. We Never Learn may just provide all the legacy the gunk punks will ever need.

    By Nate Knaebel

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